If you want some simple but effective lat exercises with dumbbells, this page will tell you everything you need to know.
Chances are you’re looking for dumbbell lat exercises because you’re training in a gym with limited equipment.
You want some back exercises that work the lat muscles, but can be done without a cable machine or pull-up bar.
If so, here are my four favorite back exercises that require nothing more than a couple of dumbbells and a bench.
My 4 Favourite Lat Exercises with Dumbbells
While there are more than four lat exercises with dumbbells out there, these are the ones I think are most effective:
- Single Arm Dumbbell Row
- Dumbbell Pullover
- Chest-Supported Incline Row
- Dumbbell Seal Row
Single Arm Dumbbell Row
First up we have the single-arm row, which is probably my favorite dumbbell exercise for working the lat muscles.
I much prefer this exercise to the barbell bent-over row, mainly because your weight is supported on the bench.
As a result, the lower back doesn’t have to work as hard to keep your spine in a neutral position (which it does with the barbell bent-over row).
This lets you focus on training your lats without lower back fatigue forcing you to cut the set short.
There are different ways to do the dumbbell row, and it’s important to do the exercise in such a way that you’re maximizing the work done by the latissimus dorsi muscles.
How do you target lats with dumbbell rows?
Watch the video below very carefully. You’ll notice that rather than coming up and down in a straight line, the dumbbell moves in an arc.
That’s tip number one for targeting the lats. Pull the dumbbell up and back towards the hips, rather than straight up and straight down.
Tip number two for targeting the lats is to keep the elbows close to your body, rather than flared out to the side.
- Put a dumbbell on the floor at one end of a bench.
- Bend forward and rest your forearm on the bench to support your body weight.
- You can also do this exercise with one knee on the bench for added support.
- Reach down, grab the dumbbell with your right hand and hold it just off the floor.
- In the starting position, your palms should be facing your torso, rather than forward or back.
- Leading with your elbow, pull the dumbbell up and back.
- The dumbbell should move in an arc, rather than straight up and straight down.
- Repeat the exercise with the dumbbell in your left hand.
- Your upper body should remain relatively still as you lift and lower the dumbbell. At the bottom of each rep, allow a slight twist in the torso to the point where you feel a stretch in your lats.
Next we have the dumbbell pullover, which is the only effective dumbbell lat exercise that isn’t some kind of row variation.
Dumbbell pullovers work more than just the lats, they also hit the chest as well as the triceps.
However, as with the dumbbell row, you can alter your technique in such a way that you’re maximizing the recruitment of the lats.
To target the lats during the dumbbell pullover, keep your elbows tucked in rather than flared out to the side.
If the elbows are flared out to the side, the pecs are going to be more involved. With the elbows tucked in, the lats take on a greater share of the work.
The video below goes into detail about how to do dumbbell pullovers in such a way that you’re maximizing lat recruitment.
FREE: The Muscle Building Cheat Sheet. This is a quick guide to building muscle, which you can read online or keep as a PDF, that shows you exactly how to put on muscle. To get a FREE copy of the cheat sheet emailed to you, please click or tap here.
- Lying crossways on a bench, take hold of a dumbbell in both hands.
- Allow your hips to sink down so they’re lower than the bench.
- Keep your feet shoulder width apart to help with stability.
- Lower the dumbbell behind your head until you feel a stretch in your lats.
- Keeping your elbows tucked in rather than flared to the side, return the dumbbell to the start position.
- Don’t bring the dumbbell too far forward. The start and end position of each rep should be that point where you feel the tension start to come off the lats.
One limitation of dumbbell pullovers is that tension in the lats tends to dissipate relatively quickly once you’ve moved past the bottom portion of the exercise.
That is, your lats are working the hardest when your arms are parallel to the floor.
Assuming you’re doing pullovers on a flat bench, the exercise gets progressively easier as you move the dumbbell above your head.
However, you can mitigate this to a degree by doing them on a decline bench, as shown in the video below.
Incline Dumbbell Row
If you’ve got an incline bench, you can also do dumbbell rows using both arms at the same time. All your weight is supported by the bench, so lower back fatigue isn’t an issue.
- Set the bench at an angle of around 30 degrees.
- Grab a pair of dumbbells and lie face down on the bench.
- Hold the dumbbells directly below your shoulders with your palms facing each other.
- Leading with your elbows, pull the dumbbells up and slightly back.
- Focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together at the top.
- Lower the dumbbells until your arms are straight.
Dumbbell Seal Row
The dumbbell seal row is similar to the incline dumbbell row, except that the bench is flat.
In order to perform the exercise through a full range of motion and avoid the dumbbells hitting the floor, you need either a dedicated seal row bench, or a regular bench raised on some plates or blocks.
- Lie face down on a bench.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand with a neutral grip (palms facing each other) and your arms hanging straight down.
- Pull the dumbbells up towards your sides by pulling your elbows back.
- Lift the dumbbell until your upper arm is in line with your torso
- Keep the arms close to your sides.
- Lower the dumbbells until your arms are straight.
How does the single-arm row compare to the seal row and incline dumbbell row?
If I had to choose one of the three, it would be the single-arm dumbbell row.
One of the main benefits of the single-arm dumbbell row is that you can perform the exercise through a slightly larger range of motion.
You get more of a stretch in the lats at the bottom of the movement, which I think makes it (slightly) more effective for muscle growth.
However, the advantage of seal rows and incline dumbbell rows is that both variations force you to be strict. Unlike the single-arm row, you can’t use momentum to swing the weight up, so there’s less scope for cheating.
Personally, I prefer using bench-supported rows (both incline and flat) to train the muscles in the upper back.
This means bringing the elbows more out to the side, and changing the path of the arm so that it’s more straight up and straight down, rather than up and back.
How To Hit The Lats With Dumbbells
Most back exercises an be put into one of two categories:
- Vertical Pull
- Horizontal Pull
A vertical pulling exercise is any movement which involves pulling resistance in a vertical path with your arms in overhead position.
The most common examples of vertical pulling movements are:
A horizontal pulling exercise is any movement which involves pulling resistance in a horizontal path with your arms in front of you.
The most common examples of horizontal pulling movements are:
Horizontal pulling exercises can be divided further into lat-focused rows and upper-back focused rows.
Most horizontal pulling movements work the same group of back muscles. However, changing the way you do the exercise can shift the focus of the exercise from one region of the back to another.
To do a lat-focused row, use a relatively narrow grip, keep your elbows close to your side, and pull your hands towards the lower part of your stomach.
To do an upper-back focused row, allow the elbows to flare out to the side (as opposed to keeping them close to your body), and pull your hands higher up on the stomach closer to your chest.
How to Structure a Back Workout with Dumbbells
You’ve got a few different ways to set up a dumbbell lat workout, depending on the workout routine you’re using and how often each muscle group is being trained.
Let’s say you’re following a 3-day full-body workout split, doing one back exercise in each workout. Here’s an example of what it might look like:
- Workout 1: Dumbbell Pullover 3-4 sets x 8-12 reps
- Workout 2: Single Arm Dumbbell Row (Lat-Focused) 3-4 sets x 8-12 reps
- Workout 3: Chest-Supported Incline Row (Upper-Back Focused) 3-4 sets x 12-15 reps
A dumbbell lat workout as part of an upper/lower split routine (where you train your chest, back, shoulders, biceps and triceps twice a week) might look something like this:
Upper Body Workout A
- Single-Arm Dumbbell Row (Lat-Focused) 3 sets x 8-12 reps
- Dumbbell Pullover 3 sets x 8-12 reps
Upper Body Workout B
- Single-Arm Dumbbell Row (Lat-Focused) 3 sets x 8-12 reps
- Dumbbell Seal Row (Upper-Back Focused) 3 sets x 12-15 reps
Frequently Asked Questions
Are pulldowns or rows better?
If I had to choose one of the two for working my lats, it would be pulldowns rather than rows.
Why is that?
Vertical pulling exercises like pulldowns and pull-ups work the lats through a much larger range of motion than rows, challenging your lats while they’re in a stretched position.
Why is that important?
One of the things that stimulates growth in a muscle is subjecting it to high levels of tension at long muscle lengths, a phenomenon known as stretch-mediated hypertrophy.
By that, I mean you want an exercise that challenges your muscles in a stretched position.
You get that with pulldowns and pull-ups, and to a degree with pullovers, but not so much with rows.
If you took two different people, and got one of them to do a vertical pulling exercise like lat pulldowns, while the other did a horizontal rowing exercise, like the dumbbell row, you’d expect to see more lat growth with pulldowns.
However, you’re not forced to choose between rows or pulldowns, and most people will see the best results doing both.
Complete development of the back requires a combination of both vertical and horizontal pulling exercises, preferably using different hand positions (overhand grip, underhand grip, wide grip, narrow grip) to recruit and stimulate all the muscles in the back.
How do you simulate a lat pulldown with dumbbells?
You can’t simulate a lat pulldown with dumbbells. The closest you can get is to hang upside down with a dumbbell in each hand and your arms straight, pull the dumbbells up towards your head, before lowering them under control to the starting position.
However, while you can’t do a lat pulldown with dumbbells, you can use dumbbells to train the same back muscles as the lat pulldown.
Are pull ups necessary for lats?
Pull ups aren’t strictly necessary for lats, and you can still make your lats grow with nothing but rows and pullovers. But I think you’ll see the best results by including some kind of vertical pulling exercise, be it pull-ups, chin-ups or pulldowns, in your workout routine.
How do I work out my lats at home?
A couple of adjustable dumbbells and a bench would be the bare minimum for working your lats at home. Add a pull-up bar and suspension trainer, and you have pretty much everything you need to make your back muscles grow.
If you’re not strong enough to do regular chin-ups or pull-ups (as most people aren’t), you can use a suspension trainer or gymnastic rings to make the exercise easier.
Watch the video below to see how it’s done.
Like the pull-up and chin-up, the TRX pull-up uses the weight of your body to provide resistance.
But unlike those two exercises, which require lifting your entire body weight in each rep, it’s possible to adjust the amount of weight you lift depending on how you position your body.
If you start off directly under the anchor point, the TRX pull-up is going to be harder compared to starting the exercise with the anchor point in front of you.
Likewise, putting both feet on the floor in a squat-type position makes each rep less challenging compared with keeping your legs straight and starting out with your arse on the floor.
That means you can start off with an easier version of the TRX pull-up, and progress to harder versions over time as your back muscles get stronger.
Are Renegade rows a good dumbbell exercise for your lats?
While I often see Renegade rows recommended as a dumbbell lat exercise, it’s not an exercise I use myself or recommend to you either.
Here are the reasons why.
The first problem is that to do the exercise, you need a couple of hexagonal dumbbells, rather than round ones. That’s another piece of equipment you need to buy.
The exercise also limits your range of motion, because the dumbbell will touch the floor well before you reach the end range of motion.
Rowing variations in general don’t train your lats through a full range of motion, a problem that’s made even worse with Renegade rows.
The lack of stability as you lift one hand off the floor is going to limit the amount of weight you’re able to lift. This in turn limits the muscle-building stimulus you deliver to your back muscles.
Maintaining a plank position also requires a lot of core strength. Some folks find that their ability to maintain a plank position causes them to terminate a set, rather than the strength of their back muscles.
The renegade row is a challenging exercise to perform correctly, but there are far better dumbbell lat exercises out there.
If you're overwhelmed and confused by all the conflicting advice out there, then check out The Muscle Building Cheat Sheet.
It's a quick guide to building muscle, which you can read online or keep as a PDF, that shows you exactly how to put on muscle. To get a copy of the cheat sheet sent to you, please enter your email address in the box below, and hit the “send it now” button.